December 25, 2009

Lighlife Smart Sausages Italian Style

After the dismal failure of the Smart Dogs (both the first attempt and the second attempt), I was pretty apprehensive about anything resembling a hot dog. But, I bravely forged ahead. I picked up a package of Lightlife's Italian Style Smart Sausages.

I cooked these up in a generous quantity of oil in a skillet. They stuck mightily to the pan anyway. I blame the pan. It's really not a great pan. Despite this, the sausages browned up nicely, and smelled really delicious while they were cooking. We served them up in regular hot dog buns, mine with ketchup, my wife's with every condiment she could find in the fridge, as usual.

First bite impressions: surprisingly little resistance. I'm used to sausages with a natural casing, the kind you sort of have to work at a little to bite through. Once I got past the no-skin situation, the sausage had a fairly chewy texture, similar to other real-meat sausages I've eaten. The flavor was also pretty pleasant, without too much fennel flavor, which I'm not a fan of. Honestly, I don't have too much more to say about these. Overall, a nice sausage. I recommend these.

The experience:
Texture - nicely chewy, once you get past the lack of resistance
Flavor - very nice Italian sausage flavor

Final grade for this attempt: A

December 18, 2009

Morningstar Fake Bacon Strips

Okay, readers. I finally gave in and tried the Morningstar Farms Veggie Bacon Strips. I was very afraid of this product, due to its play-doh-like appearance. I thought - there's no possible way this could be anything like real bacon. How could it? But, for you, I tried it anyway.

I heated up a couple strips in a skillet - no additional oil or anything, as directed. The directions said to fry over low to medium heat, turning occasionally, until crisp. First of all, the culinary student in me wants to point out that you're not actually frying these unless you actually use some oil, but I'm not actually sure what to call this cooking method, aside from "heating" so I'll just let it slide. My impressions during the cooking process: it looked like fake food. You know, like that plastic food you see sometimes (at least, when I was a kid) where you can pretend you're eating breakfast with that lump of "scrambled eggs" and "bacon" and maybe some fake plastic toast? Anyway, that's what I was thinking of when I looked at it. This image was complicated by the fact that while it was cooking, this stuff smelled AWESOME. It honestly smelled just like bacon. I don't know how they managed it.

Eventually, it got to the point where I decided it was done, plus my pancakes were ready, so I sat down and stared apprehensively at the fake bacon for a few seconds, then put it in my mouth. It was crispy, alright. Just like a cracker. The craziest part, though, was that it tasted just like bacon. But it didn't feel like bacon. The experience was that of a realistically-bacon-flavored cracker. Not terribly unpleasant, but definitely not a substitute for bacon.

The other thing I feel like I need to mention is that as it cooled (which didn't take long, due to it being incredibly wafer-thin) the texture went from crispy and cracker-like to more chewy - not like bacon-chewy... more like wet cardboard-chewy. So if you're going to eat this stuff, don't dawdle - toss it in your mouth while it's hot, and make sure you consume it all right away.

The experience:
Texture - Cracker-like when hot, wet-cardboard-like as it cooled. No resemblance to meat in any of its stages, but the crispy stage wasn't entirely unpleasant
Flavor - Seriously - the bacon flavor was totally there

Now I just need to figure out what to do with the other dozen or so strips of bacon in the package. Maybe fake-BLTs?

Final grade for this attempt: C

December 11, 2009

Lightlife Smart Deli Pepperoni

This week, we're delving into the pizza toppings realm. I saw Lightlife's Smart Deli Pepperoni when I was at the co-op picking up fake turkey ingredients, and was eager to try them out. I'm a fairly moderate pepperoni fan, to begin with. My wife, however, doesn't like it. She says it's too greasy, and was really looking forward to a (hopefully) better version. Both of us figured it'd be pretty easy to simulate pepperoni flavor, since it's mostly spices. Let's see how it turned out.

First, when I removed the fake pepperoni from its package, my first impression was that this pepperoni had seen better days. It looked kind of limp, and had ragged edges. I popped one in my mouth, which is one of my favorite things to do with real pepperoni. It was... okay. Reasonably chewy texture, kind of an off flavor. The first thing I tasted was pepper, actually, which then mutated into a soy-ish flavor. It was as if someone at the fake pepperoni factory was asked to create a product they'd never tasted, based solely on the name and a picture. I'll be honest - I don't know what exactly goes into regular pepperoni, but it tastes like more than just pepper. I still held out hope that, with sauce and cheese, the experience would not disappoint.

I made my homemade, delicious pizza crust, slathered it with my special pizza sauce (lots of garlic!), and topped half of it with the fake pepperoni. I put a layer of pepperoni under the cheese, and a layer on top of the cheese, to see which was better. The other half of the pizza was reserved for pineapple and canadian bacon, my reasoning being that if the fake pepperoni turned out to be a total bust, we'd still have half of a good pizza. I baked it off, as usual. No surprises occurred during the baking process. But then it came time to eat it.

First observation - the pepperoni on top of the cheese was a dismal failure. The moisture (what little of it there was) all evaporated, leaving a sad, desiccated mess of fake meat. It was truly inedible - leathery and tough. Ew. I peeled those off, and hoped that the layer of cheese would have a protective effect on those beneath it. It did! They had a pretty nice texture, and the pepperiness blended nicely with the sauce and cheese, as I'd hoped. I still wish they had a more assertive flavor (aside from "peppery") but all in all, a satisfactory experience. My wife actually preferred them to standard pepperoni. So there you go - if your problem with pepperoni is the greasiness, or if you enjoy regular pepperoni, but want something a little healthier from time to time, give these a shot.

The experience:
Texture - nicely chewy, but dried out easily when exposed to the oven's high temperatures
Flavor - peppery, followed by soy-ish - wished for a more authentically-pepperoni flavor, whatever that means

Final grade for this attempt: A-

December 4, 2009

Morningstar Buffalo Wings

It's football season (as some of you may be aware...) and sometimes, in our household, we like to have wings while we're watching the Vikings kick butt. So this week I'm going to let you know how the Morningstar Farms Buffalo Wings fared.

First off, I baked these in the oven, as directed, turning them over halfway, because I wanted them to be crispy. My first impression of these is that the looked like chicken nuggets, all breaded and nugget-looking. While they were baking, they smelled super delicious! Also, in the grand tradition of Morningstar products, there were 17 "wings" in the box. *sigh* Morningstar, why do you do this to me?

Once they came out of the oven, we divided them up as well as we could between the three of us (me, my wife, and our roommate), and gave them a try. My first thought was, "pretty tasty - a little mushy, though. Hey... that's really starting to heat up..." The spiciness kept increasing as I finished my first one, and made the unfortunate decision to eat a second one, thinking the spiciness had plateaued. Nope - got spicier.

Now, I'll be the first to admit, my spice tolerance is very low. It's gotten better over the years, but I know I'm pretty sensitive. I had to stop eating these after my second one, because my mouth was on fire! I could find nothing that would dull the pain. I asked my wife and roommate how spicy these seemed to them, since they can handle much more spice than I can, especially my wife. She goes to Thai restaurants and boldly declares that she wants her food "four fireballs" worth of spiciness. They both declared these a 7 out of 10 based on their personal spice tolerance scales. I felt a bit better after hearing this.

As for flavor, I had no idea what they tasted like, other than hot, so I had to rely on their comments. Our roommate claimed they had a "slight fake-meat flavor" and gave them a C. My wife said they were basically just spicy chicken nuggets, and had a bad aftertaste, giving them a C+. She said she would just rather get plain chicken nuggets and add sauces from there. I agreed, since I could actually eat those.

The experience:
Texture - crispy on the outside, kinda mushy on the inside
Flavor - pain!

Final grade for this attempt: C, for people who can actually taste them; F from me

November 27, 2009

Head to Head, #2 - real turkey vs fake turkey

As promised, I prepared a second half-batch of fake turkey to bring to my family's Thanksgiving dinner. I used the recipe found here. If anyone out there is keeping track, I used a different basting broth this time - I picked up a pre-made chicken-style vegetarian broth instead of using broth powder, and just used a cup of it (instead of reconstituting the powder). Otherwise, the ingredients were all the same as the last time I made it. The biggest difference was the method.

Here's the summary of the prep info, to illustrate the difference:

Fake turkey #1: "Mix the Wet Mix ingredients in food processor until smooth. Add the Dry Mix and process briefly until it forms a ball on blade."

Fake turkey #2: "Mix the Dry Mix ingredients in the bowl of your electric mixer with dough hook attachment. Add the Wet Mix and knead for about 10 minutes. Let rest for about 1 hour, covered. Then knead it for 10 more minutes."

Mini food science lesson: all this extra kneading serves to develop the gluten, forming stronger protein bonds, and making a chewier end product. This is the same reason that, say a baguette is chewier than banana bread. More handling, more gluten development.

During the mixing phase, I ran into some trouble. The half batch was a little too small to work well in my mixer. It just sat at the bottom of the bowl while the hook passed harmlessly over top of it, slightly indenting the dough, but doing no actual kneading. This led me to a long stretch of hand-kneading. I'll tell you - twenty minutes of kneading something that smells as weird as this did is... let's call it unpleasant. I wish my mixer had been up to this task.

Skipping to the end now. I wound up, after an eternity of cooking (used method #2), a kind of yellow-gray flat loaf. I wrapped it up, and stashed it in my fridge to bring down to my parents' house in a couple days.

Thanksgiving rolled around, and I tried to get my family psyched up to try this... thing I brought. They were willing to try it. For science! I warmed it up in the oven, which took about 30 minutes at 375 degrees, then sliced it and attempted to fan it out attractively on a plate. It didn't really work. The slices were too short to fall over, thus creating a fan, so they just kind of sat there, gray-ish and a little slimy. I boldly carried it out to the table anyway, and handed it to my wife with a flourish ("ta da!"). Everyone took a deep breath, and put some on their plates.

My mom asked how I wanted this thing evaluated, because she had some immediate thoughts on its appearance. She declared the color to be "scary". My brother said it looked more like bread than turkey.

We all dug in (if something so enthusiastic-sounding can be used to describe the most tentative eating I've ever seen). Here's what my guinea-pig family had to say:

Dad: At first there's moisture, but then there's a dryness to it

Brother: Unnecessarily rubbery, with a bread-like flavor. "I would enjoy this if it were, in fact bread, but unfortunately it is not."

Mom: (she had a lot to say about it) "I'd only eat this if I had no other choice" (which I think we determined to mean no other food, not just no other meat), "just foul - with a 'u' not a 'w'" (my family has a very pun-based sense of humor), "just say no", and described the aftertaste as "hanging" with a "plasticky" flavor, and declared milk didn't get rid of it. (My dad and I managed to wash the aftertaste away with wine, and my brother determined cranberry sauce also worked. We think it was the acid in the wine/cranberries.) Also, she said if she was grading this on a scale of 0-10, she'd give it a -1.
(side note: she asked before this deluge if I really wanted actual opinions, and I insisted on full honesty, because it wouldn't (and didn't) bother me. She's not usually this harsh about stuff I make.)

Wife: "Similar to last time, but wheatier and less edible", and "by far the least tasty thing on the table."

For my part, I'd say that it was definitely chewier than the first attempt, but nothing even remotely like meat. Maybe if someone hadn't eaten meat in at least a decade, they could be tricked into thinking this was meat-like. The flavor was very different than the first one I made. I was hoping that the chicken-esque broth would give it a better flavor, but it did not. It added no flavor at all, really, which puzzles me.

Something else we noticed - the wheat-like flavor of this fake turkey overwhelmed most other items on the plate, including gravy, and even cranberries. With mashed potatoes, the flavor mellowed a little, or maybe it just diluted it. Also, Mom tried to feed a little bite of it to the cat, who, despite not having eaten since that morning, didn't even smell it - she preferred the crumbs of leftover food from the morning. My family found this hilarious.

The experience:
Texture - C (kinda chewy, but also crumbly... hard to describe)
Flavor - D (very bread-like, and no pleasant stuffing-flavor like last time)

I just realized I haven't said anything about the actual turkey, since this is a head-to-head post. My dad cooks the turkey every year on the grill (even in the snow here in Minnesota - I have a picture of that somewhere...), and it always turns out super juicy and flavorful. No change this year, and we all figured the fake meat turkey would have absolutely no shot at winning this contest. But at least we all tried it. For science!

Real turkey: A+
Fake meat turkey: D

November 22, 2009

Homemade fake turkey update

I was informed, today, that my cousin Jill had found almost the exact same recipe somewhere else and was planning on trying it out this year. I took a look at her version of the recipe, and found that, while the ingredients were the same, the directions were COMPLETELY different. So significantly different, that I'm strongly considering trying that version, since it will have a completely different texture than the one I made.

An example of the differences: my version used a food processor to combine the ingredients briefly, until they formed a ball - the other version involves a total of 20 minutes of kneading!

Since I've got all these leftover ingredients, I might as well. Maybe I'll make it and surprise my parents with it for Thanksgiving. "Here folks - I brought this to compare with the turkey you guys prepared. How about a quote for my blog?"

Actually... do I hear the next head-to-head post calling?

Stay tuned!

Homemade fake turkey

Finally, we come to part 3 of my Fakesgiving holiday extravaganza. For the third part, I've got something very different. I've got a homemade fake turkey...loaf. Roast? Blob? Whatever you want to call it, I made it. I tried to take pictures, and I got a couple of process pictures, but my camera is bogus, so the finished product pictures didn't turn out very well. What you see in the corner of the page is the plate with a slice of each of the three fake meats. The Quorn Turk'y Roast is on the right (that's the pale, white-meat-looking, perfectly round one), on the left is the Tofurky roast with hideous stuffing in the center, and in the middle, looking vaguely phallic (sorry - unintentional) is the slice of homemade fake turkey-loaf. I'll put the recipe at the bottom of the review, in case you want to try it yourself.

The process of creating this wasn't too traumatic. I had to go to my local co-op to get many of the ingredients, since my friendly neighborhood Rainbow Foods didn't carry many of the ingredients, some of which I'd never used. I did my best to follow the recipe, since we got it from someone who had used it many times before, with good results. One thing I will say - I had some trouble coordinating all three of the roasts, since they all cooked at different temperatures, for varying amounts of time. So if you're going to do this thing, probably just pick one. It'll be easier for you.

I had trouble believing that this:

plus this:

which, when combined, created this:

could actually be tasty, or even remotely resemble meat. But, I went with it, in the name of science!

Here's what the diners had to say:
"pleasantly moist and squishy with nice crunchy bits", "bread-like", "texture like soft or soggy bread", "fair amount of turkey flavor, though tastes closer to stuffing", "loafy", "my favorite of the three", "somewhat bready flavor...mushier than I would like", "bitter aftertaste", "texture = spongy - not bad to me", "looks like a loaf of bread I found in a puddle".

Common consensus seemed to be that it was relatively pleasant (except for the person who said it looked like it was found in a puddle), although not very meat-like. Most people said it tasted like stuffing, which makes sense, since I put the same herbs into it that people usually use in stuffing. I'm not sure what could be done to make it more chewy and less bready, but there you go.

If you are reading this and you make this sort of things a lot, send me some suggestions, or recipes. I have a bunch of leftover vital wheat gluten, soy flour, and a small quantity of nutritional yeast flakes (but I know where to get more), and I'm not sure what to do with it. I'm also not afraid of it anymore, so send me recipes! If there's something you want me to try out, let me know - I take requests.

The experience:
Texture - B (not meaty, but fairly pleasant)
Flavor - B- (again, not meat-like at all, but pretty yummy)

I'm not sure I'd call this a fake turkey item, as it had no real resemblance to turkey. Maybe you could mold it to look more turkey-shaped? If you do that, please send me a picture!

Final grade for this attempt: B

And now the recipe, with my comments in brackets:

Homemade fake turkey loaf (or whatever you want to call it)
Makes about 3 pounds [I cut it in half]

2 C pure gluten powder (instant gluten flour; vital wheat gluten)
1/2 C full-fat soy flour or chickpea flour
1/2 C nutritional yeast flakes
2 tsp onion powder
1 tsp garlic granules
1/4 tsp white pepper

12 oz firm to extra-firm tofu [I used extra-firm]
1 1/2 C water
3 Tbsp soy sauce
1 Tbsp olive oil

2 C hot water
1/3 C "chicken-style" vegetarian broth powder [I didn't find "chicken-style" in bulk, so I just used regular vegetable broth powder - this probably made it not taste at all like meat]
2 Tbsp olive oil
OPTIONAL: 4 cloves garlic, crushed
1/2-1 tsp poultry herbs (sage, thyme, rosemary), crushed well [I used about a teaspoon of each]


Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F.

Mix the Wet Mix ingredients in food processor until smooth. Add the Dry Mix and process briefly until it forms a ball on blade. Remove and, with wet hands, form into 2 loaves. Place each loaf in an oiled loaf pan and press down a bit with your hand. Mix the Basting broth ingredients in a small bowl and pour about 1/2 a cup over each loaf. Cover each loaf pan with foil and place in the oven.

Bake for 30 minutes, add about half of the remaining Basting broth and bake another 30 minutes, basting the top now and then. Turn the loaves over, carefully loosening around the edges and from the bottom with a small, thin spatula first. Add the remaining Basting Broth and bake about 30 minutes more, basting frequently. The loaves should completely soak up the broth by the end of the cooking time. If they don't, cook until they do. [mine went an extra 15 minutes or so] Remove from the pans and serve or let cool. Can be frozen.

Slice this VERY thinly for sandwiches, or you can slice it into 1/4"-thick "cutlets" for scaloppine, into chunks for stews and pot pies, slivers for stir-fries, or oblong chunks for "fried chicken", or other "chicken" dishes, browning first in a little oil.

FOR A STUFFED "TURKEY", [I might be interested in trying this at some point]

Divide the dough in half and roll each half out on a damp, clean counter with a wet rolling pin to make a circle 15" across, more or less. Mound about 3 and 1/2 c. stuffing in the middle. Sprinkle the top with roasted sesame oil. Fold the dough up around the stuffing in a loaf shape, pinching very well to seal the dough. Smooth into loaf shape and place each loaf in a very well-oiled 9x5" loaf pan. Now proceed as in the basic recipe, EXCEPT make 1 and 1/2 times the Basting Broth recipe.

November 21, 2009

Tofurky Roast

Welcome to part two of my fabulous fake turkey holiday extravaganza! Today, we're going to try out the Tofurky Roast. This is what most people think of when they think fake turkey. At least, the people I know. According to the website, "Tofurky Roasts have been America's original and best selling alternative to turkey" since it was introduced in 1995. It must be good, if people keep buying it, right? Let's find out!

I got the plain roast, with no extra fixings, since we'd already planned for all that stuff. Also, even though the website doesn't show it, I got the one that doesn't even come with gravy. Just the roast. Nothing fancy.

Again, I'll compare the website's promises to our experience. The website lauds, "its savory flavor and meat-like texture." Sounds a little more realistic, in my opinion. Savory flavor, meat-like texture. Let's see what the diners thought.

"well salted", "taste was ok but rather 'fake meat'", "it tries to taste like turkey", nice savory flavor", okay, not great", "A-", "B+"

"chewy...not meat-like, but this is a feature for me, not a bug", "spongy texture", "more rubbery - closer to meat texture than the others but squeaky", "best texture [of the three]", "meaty texture", "D"

The bottom of this roast got really tough and hard to cut through. I think in the future, I would rotate the roast as it cooked, even though the directions said nothing about turning it.

Also, the website doesn't talk about the stuffing inside this roast, and none of the other reviews I found online discussed it. I feel it deserves a mention. Here are some comments on the stuffing: "stuffing is very gluey and unpleasant", "stuffing=icky", "I like the stuffing ok", "stuffing: D". I'm surprised nobody else even mentions it - that was one of the few items on my plate that did not get eaten. Almost nobody ate the stuffing out of the middle of this roast.

When combined with the sides, this was actually fairly pleasant to eat. I'd eat it again, although if I could find one without stuffing in the middle, I'd prefer that.

The experience:
Texture - B-
Flavor - B+

Final grade for this attempt: B

November 20, 2009

Vegetarian gravy, from scratch!

Here's the gravy recipe I promised. This works just as well with chicken stock or beef stock as it does for vegetable stock. I'd use red wine instead of white wine for a beef gravy, but otherwise everything is the same.

Vegetarian gravy:
(makes about 2 cups)

3 tablespoons butter
3 tablespoons flour
1/2 cup white wine
1 1/2 cup vegetable stock (or broth)
salt and pepper to taste
herbs and spices to complement your meal, to taste (for the turkey roast, I used dried sage and thyme, about a teaspoon of each)

First melt your butter in a saucepan, then add the flour. Whisk together, making sure there are no lumps of flour. Using a whisk is really important for this, so make sure you have one.

Once the flour and butter cook together a few minutes (just enough to get the starchy taste out), add the wine, whisking constantly. This will bubble up and hiss a bit - just keep whisking, it'll be okay. The wine will thicken up considerably, very quickly. Once the wine is fully incorporated, add the broth, again, whisking constantly. It'll look a little weird for a few seconds, just trust me.

Once the broth is fully incorporated, this is where you get to be creative. Add your spices, and the salt and pepper, tasting as you go, to make sure it ends up where you want it. Once it's delicious, you're done! If it seems a little too thin, let it simmer, uncovered, for a little bit, stirring occasionally to prevent a skin from forming - it'll thicken up a little as the water evaporates out.

Quorn Turk'y Roast

This week, I'm doing a special 3-part holiday extravaganza. With Thanksgiving coming up, I thought I should review a fake turkey product. I ended up doing three! Two commercial roasts, and one from scratch! So I had some people over, fixings were gathered (mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, brussels sprouts, stuffing, gravy, and apple cobbler for dessert), roasts were... roasted, and then we excitedly dug in. The sides were all vegetarian (except for the stuffing - the person who was supposed to bring the stuffing couldn't make it, so I had to resort to a last minute chicken-flavored popular boxed stuffing.) The gravy, however, was made from scratch, with a homemade vegetable stock. I'll post the recipe in a separate entry after this post.

Because of the huge amount of information, I'm going to break this up into three separate reviews - one posted today, one tomorrow, and the final one on Sunday, so if you still haven't figured out what to have for Thanksgiving, hopefully this info will help guide you.

First off, the Quorn brand turk'y roast. I was very excited for this one, as I've heard good things about Quorn. Here's what the website says about this roast: "Turk'y roast - deliciously succulent for holiday meals and tasty sandwiches!"

My dictionary has "succulent" defined as "tender, juicy, and tasty". Let's address each of these adjectives in turn, with quotes from the diners and me.

"ABYSMAL texture", "too firm for my taste", "crumbly", "texture is fine"

"meh! dry", "oh so dry; not better with gravy", "dry"

"I bet this is supposed to taste like white meat, which I don't like anyway", "fairly turkey-like taste", "very little turkey flavor - D", "little bit sweet, fairly bland", "bland", "flavor: D"

I'd go ahead and vote down the description of "succulent" based on these comments. But how similar was it to actual turkey? The consensus seemed to be that it looked and felt and (for the most part) tasted like dry, overcooked white meat turkey. Some of us, myself included, couldn't get past the texture though. I hate dry meat, and as it turns out, dry fake meat is no better.

The experience:
Texture - F
Flavor - D-

Final grade for this attempt: F

Tomorrow, I will review an actual brand-name Tofurky roast! Can it live up to the hype? Stay tuned!

November 6, 2009

The Original Gardenburger

This week, I'm reviewing The Original Gardenburger. I had a different review written this morning, but it was really boring, so I'm eating a Gardenburger for lunch today. Just for you, dear readers.

Now, Gardenburgers (at least this one - I haven't inspected their entire line) aren't really intended to be like meat, I assume. I infer this from the fact that these aren't made from a soy product, and make no claim to being like meat. It's mostly mushrooms, with some rice, some cheese, and then a jumble of seasonings and flavorings and miscellaneous other stuff.

I cooked one up, using the stovetop method. Tossed it into my super amazing nonstick skillet, and heated it up. Not sure if I let it go for the full 5 minutes on each side that the directions called for, but it ended up hot. Works for me. I applied burger to bun, added some ketchup (after a first tentative bite to see if it would work with ketchup), and went to town on it.

First up, the texture. It was kind of weird - a little lumpy. But since it's not claiming to be "meaty", I'll let this go. It had an okay flavor - a little bland, but I imagine it is supposed to be, so you can add stuff to it. I bet it would taste awesome with some Swiss cheese, and I fully intend to try that next time I eat one. (Mushroom and Swiss - classic combo!)

The experience:
Texture - a little lumpy, not entirely unpleasant
Flavor - pretty bland - good base for making it whatever you want.

I was surprised that this didn't taste at all mushroomy, considering how many mushrooms were involved in the production of this product. So, if you don't typically like mushrooms, don't be afraid to give this a shot.

Final grade for this attempt: A-

October 30, 2009

Morningstar Sausage Patties

Another breakfast review this week. I'm still holding out on that box of fake bacon - it scares me. Give me time. For now, however, we've got Morningstar farms sausage patties. After the disappointing experience with the links, I was a little wary of the patties. But I had heard from a number of different people that the patties are far superior to the links, so I dove in.

We were having these patties with some delicious French toast (made with my homemade pumpkin bread - from real pumpkin! That recipe came from here.). After I took them out of the box (wrapped in three packets of two patties each) the first thing I noticed was that these patties are TINY! Only about two inches in diameter. Good thing there were only three of us eating, so we each got two. Plus all the French toast we could fit in our bellies. Yum!

So, heeding the advice of others, I got some oil in the pan to cook up these babies. Not a lot - just a little bit. The directions said to cook over medium heat for 8-10 minutes, turning as needed to promote even browning. I think I did a pretty good job following these directions, but at about 6 minutes, they were pretty well browned. So I took them out of the pan, finished cooking the French toast, and then we dug in.

The outsides of the patties were delightfully crispy, which I greatly appreciated. The insides, however, were oddly mushy. This might be due to the fact that they didn't get their full 8-10 minutes on the heat. But if they had, the outsides probably would have been tough and leathery! What a diabolical conundrum! My solution is for Morningstar to make the patties the same weight but flatten them a little more so they cook more evenly, while simultaneously giving them a slightly larger diameter. I mean, my next plan for these is to put them on an English muffin with some egg and some cheese (yum!) but I don't feel like they'll fit very well. We'll see. Aside from the size and interior texture problems, these were actually quite tasty. I'd eat these again, for sure.

The experience:
Texture - Beautifully crispy on the outside, mushy on the inside.
Flavor - nicely sausage-y, just right

Final grade for this attempt: B+

October 23, 2009

Morningstar Crumbles

This week I'm going to do something a little different. Instead of just reviewing the fake meat product, I'm also going to give you the recipe I used it for. Most things I've done so far haven't really been conducive to recipe-sharing, but this one is a doozy. Here we go.

For this recipe I used Morningstar Crumbles. It was my first attempt with this brand of crumbles. These are frozen, like the Boca crumbles, but they don't all come in the same dog-food-like shape. The crumbles actually look a lot like meat, which I appreciate. I ended up cooking it a lot longer than the recipe said, because I went out for a walk in the middle of it (I turned off the heat while I was out of the house, but it was all still hot, therefore still cooking), but none of the textures suffered even slightly. The fake meat was nice and chewy, very similar to real meat, and my noodles weren't too squishy. This soup was amazing! I will definitely be making this again, and I strongly suggest you do too.

The recipe I used came from this site with a few of my alterations. I'm posting what I actually did below, but if you want to know how it started out, check out that link. I also just found, on Morningstar's website, this product which might also work very well for this recipe, maybe even better, if you're into sausage in your lasagne. Let me know if you try that out.

The experience:
Texture - nicely chewy, very similar to meat
Flavor - no flavors strong enough to overpower the tomatoes, garlic, basil, and oregano

Final grade for this attempt: A+

Lasagna Soup (8 servings)

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 pkg. Morningstar Crumbles
2 cups diced onions (I just used one of my huge CSA onions)
5 cloves garlic, minced

1/2 teaspoon dried basil (I just sprinkled liberally - no measuring here)

1/2 teaspoon dried oregano (same as the basil, but roughly the same quantity)

1/4 teaspoon salt (again - season to taste here)
1/4 teaspoon black pepper

One 14.5-ounce can diced tomatoes

One 15-ounce can tomato sauce

Two 14-ounce cans chicken broth (I used reconstituted chicken base, same amount)

1 cup frozen chopped spinach, thawed
1/2 cup mini Farfalle pasta (I used some mini lasagna-shaped noodles)

2 cups ricotta cheese (I definitely used less than this)

2 tablespoons fresh, chopped basil (I sprinkled dried basil on top for garnish, since I had no fresh)

In a saucepan or stockpot (I used my Dutch oven) heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the onion, and garlic. Cook, until onions are softened. Add Morningstar crumbles and break up in to small bits. Add dried basil, oregano, salt, black pepper, tomatoes, tomato sauce, and chicken broth. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium-low and allow to simmer for 15 minutes. Add spinach and pasta, and continue to cook until pasta is done, according to directions on package.

Meanwhile in a small bowl stir the fresh, chopped basil (if using) into the ricotta cheese. When soup is finished, ladle into shallow bowls. Carefully add 1/4 cup (I used 2 tablespoons or so) of the ricotta to the bowl. Sprinkle with freshly grated Parmesan cheese and basil if desired.

October 16, 2009

Boca Bruschetta patty

This week, I'm going to review Boca's Bruschetta patty. This isn't technically replacing a meat product, since I don't think I've ever had a tomato basil parmesan burger, although that sounds delicious. I just saw it in the store and thought it sounded tasty. We'll get back to the proper fake meat products next week.

I had some fresh, homemade gnocchi that one of my classmates had made in school, but I didn't have a whole bunch of it, so I figured I'd whip these patties up to go with it. I took the idea from the box to cook them in a skillet in some oil, hoping for a nice crispy crust. Unfortunately, my timing was off (the gnocchi took longer to cook than I was expecting), so the patties ended up a little overcooked. We ate them anyway, of course. But I'm keeping in mind that they could be better.

When overcooked, the patty developed a leathery exterior, and didn't have much in the way of flavor. They had a smell almost like they wanted to be more tomato-y. Like maybe someone had carried a basket of sun-dried tomatoes through the patty factory, and they picked up some of the aroma. The ingredients do list "oven roasted tomatoes", and it's pretty high up the list. I think I may have bitten into a chunk of tomato at one point, but aside from seeing it, there was no obvious tomato experience. I then tried a bite of the gnocchi with a bite of the patty. This was better, mostly because it provided the patty with a nice selection of flavors.

Honestly, I do want to try these again at some point. I feel like there's potential here, I just cooked it too long. I will do better next time! I swear!

The experience:
Texture - leathery, because I overcooked it
Flavor - not much flavor at all, but I'm not sure if this was due to the overcooking

Final grade for this attempt: C-

October 9, 2009

Morningstar Veggie Sausages

This morning, we take on the important realm of breakfast fake meats, starting with Morningstar Farms Veggie Sausage Links. The first thing I'm going to say about it is that I'm glad that the word sausage doesn't carry any legally-binding meat connotations, so they don't have to change it to something weird. (like chicken becoming chik'n)

Okay - we were having breakfast for dinner (a.k.a. Brinner) the other night, so I was making some pancakes and eggs to go with these sausages. I went with the stovetop method of preparing these, hoping for a nicely browned, crispy crust. This I did not get. Here's what the directions say:

• Place frozen links in cold skillet.
• Add 1/4" of water.
• Cook over MEDIUM heat, allowing water to evaporate.
• Cook 2-3 additional minutes, turning frequently to allow product to brown.

I did what it asked of me. First, the water took FOREVER to all evaporate. I made all my pancakes while this was happening. Then, once the water was gone, the sausages started to stick really bad to my amazing non-stick skillet. Nothing I have ever made has stuck to this skillet, so I'm not sure what these things are made out of that caused them to stick. Due to the sticking, I didn't get a nice browned exterior. Well, I'm sure I did, but it tore off the sausage when I took it out of the skillet. In any case, the rest of the food was done, and the sausages were hot, so we went ahead and ate them.

The sausages on their own definitely did not taste like a real-meat sausage, although it was obvious that it was trying. Instead of the typical soy flavor, it tasted very strongly of sausage-spice. Mostly pepper, I want to say. The texture, though, was not great. Very mushy. At this point, I remembered my typical sausage-eating strategy of wrapping a bite of sausage in a bite of pancake and eating them together. This disguised both the flavor and texture problems. At this point, it was just like eating a real-meat sausage, and I enjoyed it quite a bit. I highly recommend this technique.

The experience:
Texture - mushy - not great, but not as noticeable when combined with a pancake
Flavor - very peppery, not very soy-tasting

Final grade for this attempt: A-

October 2, 2009

Head to Head, #1 - crumbles, now with a photo!

This week, I'm doing something a little different. I'm pitting a fake meat product directly against real meat to see what kinds of differences I can observe. So here we go. I made two boxes of Hamburger Helper (Cheeseburger Macaroni), one with ground beef, the other with Boca crumbles. I did everything I could to cook them the same way, including browning the ground beef then removing it from the pan to cook the noodles and sauce separately, so I wouldn't over-beef the sauce and bias the results. The only thing I forgot is that the Boca crumbles are frozen, as opposed to the Smart Ground crumbles I had used before, so I overcooked the noodles a bit, waiting for the crumbles to thaw and warm. Oops.

I also had a few help me eat all this food. Two were the pescetarians who inspired all this, one is my best friend who also sometimes eats fake meat, one was my totally meat-eating roommate, and last, but not least, my wife. We each took some of both types.

I'll be honest - they looked fairly similar, aside from the fake meat crumbles being shaped a bit like cat food. A little off-putting to make that comparison, but we ate it anyway. Once we smelled it, or tasted it, however, the differences were totally obvious. There's no sneaking this fake-meat meal past a carnivore.

So we dug in, fully aware of which was which. No blind taste test here, I'm afraid. The consensus seemed to be that both were good but the real meat was definitely better. One of the pescetarians mentioned that if she hadn't had them side-by-side she maybe wouldn't have noticed that the fake meat one was as different from real meat. So that's a good insight into learning to eat fake meat - don't ever eat real meat, and you'll start to like the fake meat version more.

The experience:
Texture - The Boca crumbles were a little chewier than real meat, or maybe chewier in a slightly different way. More rubbery, less, for lack of a better word, meaty.
Flavor - The flavor of the Boca Helper was definitely very soy-ish, which makes sense. Not bad, overall.

Real meat Helper: A
Fake meat Helper: B+

September 25, 2009

Lightlife Smart Dogs, second try

This week is the second attempt at Lightlife Smart Dogs. I didn't have high hopes for these, I'll be honest. They have been in my fridge since the first attempt, just waiting for me to give in to my journalistic integrity and give them a second shot. I promised you all I would, so here goes.

In preparation for this, I made up some homemade coleslaw, and cooked some corn on the cob. I was ready to have a real, American cookout experience. With my Foreman grill. Too lazy for charcoal, sorry guys. Maybe next time I get my hands on some fake hot dogs.

Since I microwaved these last time, I decided to try a couple different cooking techniques, keeping in mind that the goal is not to cook them, but merely to warm them. First, a pot of boiling water. Dropped a couple dogs in there to warm up. I also cooked a couple on the grill, next to some backup real-meat hot dogs (but not touching - the experiment is still valid!). I threw them all in buns and topped with ketchup (my only condiment of choice for hot dogs of any sort). Took a moment to center myself, while wondering what the hell I was doing, then took a big bite of the boiled dog.

When I tried it before, it was a completely naked dog, no bun, no ketchup, and it was foul. With both bun and ketchup, it was slightly better. It tasted a little like barbecue sauce, but with a background flavor of... something else. Probably soy sauce. It was not terribly pleasant. And the texture... oh the texture. Super mushy. My mouth was not pleased. I think it may have taken on some of the water it was boiled in.

So I abandoned that one, took a deep breath, and got ready to try the grilled dog. It had an ever-so-slightly better texture, but the flavor was identical. I'd like to say I was really let down by these, but I wasn't expecting much. At least I had some real hot dogs to accompany my (only so-so) coleslaw and (super awesome) corn, and I don't have to continue ignoring the package of Smart Dogs in my fridge. *phew*

The experience:
Texture - mushy
Flavor - sorta BBQ, sorta soy sauce, mostly ick

Final grade: D-

September 18, 2009

Morningstar Asian Veggie Patty

This week, I'm checking out Morningstar Farms Asian Veggie Patties. These are not technically attempting to replace meat, but I figured it should still count. Plus it looked tasty.

First off, the description on the box and website says, "A sweet and spicy veggie patty with hints of chilis, garlic, and ginger." My spice tolerance is very low, so that chili thing made me a teensy bit nervous, but the "hints of" part reassured me. I threw a couple patties on the ol' Foreman grill to heat them up and get them nice and crispy, tried to guess what sort of condiments would go with an Asian veggie patty, and ultimately decided to eat it naked. The patty was naked, I mean. I'm not here to talk about what I was wearing.

Anyway, there was not much to say about the patty's appearance or smell. It sort of smelled like general freezer-smell, frankly, which makes sense, given that it came out of a freezer. So I dug in. Gotta tell you - it was spicier than the box indicated it would be. Not so much that I couldn't eat it, but it did make it so that I couldn't really taste anything else. Maybe that was good. I don't know. The biggest problem I ran into, since I couldn't taste it, was the texture. The first ingredient is carrots; the second is water chestnuts. I could definitely tell when each bite contained one or both of these. Man, I hate water chestnuts. They have such a gross texture. Maybe other people like them, but I'd just rather avoid them, if I can. Aside from the random vegetables, the patty was pretty lame, texturally. It was almost mushy, except for the edges, which were nicely crisp from the grill. All in all, this was a fairly unpleasant experience. I don't know what I plan to do with the other two patties in the box. Maybe I'll try one of the recipes that use them. I'll let you know.

The experience:
Texture - Very inconsistent texture, and very fragile - falls apart easily
Flavor - So much spiciness that it drowned out any other potential flavors for me

Final grade for this attempt: C-

September 11, 2009

Morningstar Grillers Prime

This week, I'm going to talk about Morningstar Farms Grillers Prime Veggie Burgers. The description on the box (and on the website) promises "Savory grilled prime burger flavor, veggie-style." I was intrigued, as I really enjoy the flavor of beef.

There were a bunch of options for heating these bad boys up. Everything from the oven to the microwave, but, since we were aiming for a grilled flavor, I fired up my Foreman grill. Just too lazy for charcoal, sorry. I got all my accoutrements ready, which, at my house, includes cheese, lettuce, tomato, onion, ketchup, and mustard. The cheese we got was a nice apple-smoked cheddar, and the tomato was fresh out of my garden, just so you know.

The grilling instructions say to "lightly spray both sides of the pattie [sic]with cooking spray" which I totally missed when I made these (and isn't it spelled "patty"?). Odd note, in reading all the instructions now, to inform you, in all the other cooking methods, the food is referred to as a burger, not a "pattie". Anyway, I tossed them (all four!) onto my grill, and let them hang out there for a couple minutes. I then added cheese to only three of them, leaving one naked for testing purposes. Once they were nice and hot, and the cheese was all melty, I pulled them off and got them ready for eating. The naked burger got only ketchup and a bun. The other three got everything.

I tried the naked one first, just to see what I was in for. It had a nice, crispy exterior, which I appreciated. Here comes the catch: it tasted nothing like beef. It did, however, taste exactly like a frozen chicken patty. I used to eat those all the time in college at the dorm, and they have a pretty distinctive flavor. So, with the bun and the ketchup, it was pretty enjoyable, but nothing like a burger. With the lettuce, tomato, ketchup, and cheese, the chicken-patty flavor completely disappeared. It was like eating a slightly chewy lettuce and tomato sandwich with a weird smoky flavor from the cheese. Pretty unpleasant, actually. I tried removing components, one by one, to see what it would take to make it taste good. Once the lettuce and tomato came off, it was better. I'd have taken off the cheese, if I could have, but it was really melted in there. Big disappointment.

The experience:
Texture - nice crispy exterior, slightly stringy-looking interior, but a good mouthfeel
Flavor - tasted just like chicken!

My wife agreed with me on the chicken patty assessment. In fact, I'd tasted it, took some notes without saying anything out loud, then she said the exact same thing I'd written down. It was pretty funny. I think next time, I'll actually give the charcoal grill a chance to infuse these with some nice grilled flavor to see if it makes it any more beefy-tasting. Otherwise, they serve as pretty tasty chicken patties, when left naked.

Final grade for this attempt: C+

September 4, 2009

Morningstar Chik'n Tenders

This week, I'm reviewing Morningstar Farms Chik'n Tenders. This one is pretty straightforward. Frozen, breaded meat-like strips. What could go wrong?

My first impressions, after dumping the items out of the box onto the tray: These look and smell like frozen chicken tenders. So far, so good. My biggest problem at this point is that the box contains seven tenders. Seven!? What a weird number! They couldn't have thrown one more in to make a nice even number? I mean, the serving size was listed as 2 tenders, making the package contain 3.5 servings. Who thought that up?

I spent the next 15 minutes or so complaining about there being seven tenders in the box while I waited for them to bake. Also, while complaining (I'm a multitasker!), I whipped up some delicious honey mustard, which was about 2/3 Dijon mustard, 1/3 honey. I like my honey mustard to be sweet. I also dug out the ketchup and the barbecue sauce from the fridge. Even though I was only going to be eating 3.5 tenders (I was splitting them with my wife) I wanted to check out a variety of dipping sauces to see which provided the tastiest fake-meat experience.

So out of the oven, all sizzling and tasty-looking, they came. Nice and crisp exterior, just what I ask for in a frozen nugget. I took the first bite with no sauce, to get the full experience. Aside from the "I've been frozen!" flavor (which is very similar to actual chicken tenders from the freezer), I'd say these are very tasty! They were even better with the sauces, although my wife said they tasted more artificial when dipped in barbecue sauce. I couldn't really taste anything other than barbecue sauce, which I'm already not a huge fan of, so I'll take her word on that one. My favorite was the ketchup, but my favorite condiment is ketchup anyway, so no surprises there. The chik'n tenders did take extremely well to the honey mustard. If you're going to try them for yourselves, I'd recommend whipping some up.

The experience:
Texture - nice meat-like texture.
Flavor - basic frozen chicken tender experience - in other words, as good as expected

One odd note: the inside was kind of stringy-looking but, oddly, this did not affect the texture. It did look kind of creepy, so if you're trying to pass these off as real meat, you might want to keep that in mind.

Final grade for this attempt: A-

August 28, 2009

Lightlife Smart Dogs, first try

The new product to test is Lightlife Smart Dogs. I knew this was going to be a tough sell, as I'm really picky about my hot dogs. My favorite is the Schweigert All Beef Wieners (hee hee - wieners!) with natural casing, in case anyone wanted to know. For me, hot dogs are serious business. So I went in to this with pretty low expectations.

First off, the package says you can either boil them or microwave them. My usual MO is to microwave my hot dogs ("until they scream" - my kitchen is a fun place), so that's what I did. Since my plan was to slice them up and mix them into some macaroni and cheese (yum!), I took 3 dogs out of the package and threw them onto a plate. The package said 30 seconds per dog, but my microwave is pretty buff, so I went with one minute total.

Before I get to what happened there, I must describe my first impressions of this item. As soon as I tore open the package, I encountered a rather unpleasant odor. One which I'm sure I must get used to, if I'm going to be using lots of soy-based products. It kind of smelled like soy sauce, which really makes sense. (I later smelled a regular hot dog - to be fair, it also smelled weird, but it got better after I cooked it)

Okay - after a minute in the microwave, the bottoms of the dogs had sort of blistered, in a rather unappealing way, but this is sort of part of the microwaved hot dogs experience, so I went ahead. It still smelled like it did right out of the package, which was a little disappointing. They were very hot, and I used my knife to cut off a chunk. It was super rubbery, and actually took two tries to get through the top part of the skin. Once I got a bite-sized chunk separated from the rest of the dog, I took a good look at it. It was orange. Very orange. In discussions following this experience, I was reminded that the pink of standard hot dogs is chemically enhanced, but still... couldn't they have worked a little harder to get that nice chemically pink in these? Orange! I steeled myself and popped it into my mouth.

The experience:
Texture - Very rubbery, which didn't improve during the chewing.
Flavor - It tasted like it smelled, kind of soy-sauce-ish

I fed a piece to my wife as well, and she agreed with the foulness of this experience. Luckily, we had a regular beef hot dog in the fridge, so our dinner wasn't completely ruined, but we threw out the Smart Dogs. Next time, I will try boiling them to see if that improves the experience. See what happens here.

Final grade for this attempt: F

August 25, 2009

Lightlife Smart Ground, second try

A few days later, it was taco date night. The aforementioned pescetarians arrived, and started to get excited when I told them I was making fake-meat tacos. Armed with my plans, I boldly declared that these tacos were going to be great.

First step in fixing the problems I had before was to prepare absolutely everything else first. The only steps I took were to put the crumbles in the skillet, no heat, and just let them sit there, waiting for everything else to be ready. Once the other ingredients were in place, and still without applying heat, I sprinkled on the taco seasoning and added 3/4 cup water. Also, I stirred in about a tablespoon of tomato paste, just to help counteract any sweetness that may have been present. Once everything was fully mixed together, I finally applied heat. It only took a couple minutes to get it all bubbly, so I quickly removed it from the pan, and we got ready to dig in.

The experience:

Texture - I don't know if it was the extra water, or the not overcooking it, but this time around, it had a great texture. Nice and chewy, like meat is supposed to be, but not into the realm of rubbery.
Flavor - No extra sweetness. Not sure whether this was due to not burning it, or the tomato paste, but either way I was pleased.

If I hadn't known this was fake meat, I'm not sure I would have noticed any difference, at least for the taco application - I'll probably try this in other meals in the future.

Final grade: A+

Lightlife Smart Ground, first try

The first product I tested was Lightlife Smart Ground. I was using it to make tacos, which is slightly cheating, because one would assume that the boldness of the taco seasoning would overwhelm any weird flavors in the fake meat. This was desirable for my first attempt. Plus, tacos are awesome.

To prepare the fake meat, I tossed it in a skillet, broke up the big blob of ... product. I have to admit, I was a little trepidatious. This was the test run for the actual taco date with the pescetarians, so I wanted it to go well. This stuff looked weird. Once I got it broken up into crumbles, though, it did kind of look like meat. I applied heat, and got it all warm. (no actual cooking required - a bonus for some people) I sprinkled on the taco seasoning, and stirred in however much water it called for, 2/3 cup maybe? It thickened immediately. It was freakishly fast, probably because it was already hot. I had one other thing to finish up before the tacos were ready to eat, so I let the seasoned fake meat sit on the heat for a little while to let the flavors meld. That was a mistake. When I came back to it maybe a minute or two later, it was burned. Oops. We used it anyway, since it was only burned a little bit on the bottom - I quickly scraped it out of the hot pan and into a bowl to prevent any further burning.

The experience:

Texture - distressingly mushy
Flavor - despite the taco seasoning, there was a pervasive sweetness that was pretty unpleasant

My roommate ate it, not knowing it was fake meat, and when the deceit was revealed to him afterward, he said he thought it tasted funny. I thought it was kind of awful, and made plans to change my technique for taco date night a few days hence.

Interesting note: over the next couple days, as I ate the leftovers, the texture (and to some extent, the flavor) of the fake meat improved. This gave me hope for future attempts.

Final grade for this attempt: C

August 24, 2009

First Post!

Hello! I am an unabashed omnivore exploring the crazy world of meat alternatives. Why am I doing this? Several reasons:

1. I am in culinary school, so I feel the need to expand my culinary horizons

2. I keep accumulating friends who are vegetarians and vegans and want to impress them with my non-meat cooking skills, since my best meat dishes aren't going to cut it with them.

3. With fake meat products usually having little to no fat, and no cholesterol, they do seem healthier than meat, so for general health reasons, it seems like a good thing to explore.

When first embarking on this adventure, I checked online for reviews of the different brands of fake meats - I found the occasional review for a single brand, but nothing comparative. So-and-so thought this one brand was okay. But is it better than some other brand? Who knows? Also, I didn't find anything comparing fake meat to real meat. I wanted to know: is this tasty? or it is just tasty relative to other fake meats? How is the texture? How does it look? Would meat eaters enjoy it as well?

So those are the questions I'm here to answer. I plan on giving each brand a couple tries, just to get over the weirdness factor, and possibly correct any errors in preparation, in case that affected the final product. I hope you enjoy my adventures and find them useful.